Jarred Cinman considers the problem of the digital skills shortage and a plan and a plea.
The South African technology industry is suffering from a profound lack of skilled people to deliver on the needs of our clients. Where those clients are ourselves – in the development of startup technology – the problem is even more severe.
The Word Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report, which measures the preparedness of an economy to use information communication technology (ICT) to boost competitiveness and well-being, ranked Europe as the leader in the use of ICTs to transform the economy and society. Sadly, South Africa was placed 70th, behind Mauritius, which was the first African country on the list, in 55th position.
Put simply, if we cannot produce better and more employees we will continue to have an industry that is plagued by a deadly combination of mediocre work and an escalating salary bill.
Dynamics at play
In South Africa we find ourselves at an uncomfortable intersection. On the one side of the playing field is a relatively well-funded corporate world with world-class aspirations. This means that South Africa feels able to compete on even terms with anyone, anywhere.
On the other side is an educational system – primary, secondary and tertiary, and a corporate training environment – that is mostly terrible, and declining from there. We have not kept up with the rising demand for what Google calls “smart creatives”, in which I would include programmers, strategists, creatives, user experience (UX) designers and so on.
Along with that there are an estimated 344 000 unemployed people with degrees, diplomas and certificates. Although a tertiary qualification remains the most successful indicator of finding employment (90% of graduates are employed) the remainder fail to find work.
Beyond the formal education system we have also failed to build sufficient appreciation for the beauty of work. This may sound overly romantic but abundant societies have, at their core, a belief that excellence is something that requires patience and hard work. This is true of both the old timers in society and the millennials. In post-apartheid South Africa, there has been little investment into instilling these values in young people.
As a result of a combination of inadequate education and an insufficient belief in the importance of hard work, the employees available to us are increasingly mediocre. That’s unfortunate because the desires of our clients have never been greater.
However it is not only education that is the problem. This industry is struggling to retain skills – and by the industry I mean technology and digital businesses primarily, not large corporates who are competing for these skills. And as a country we are struggling to keep the best people here.
Because there are relatively few skilled people, and comparatively many jobs, we all experience high staff churn. Ironically, the better your business, the more likely your people are to leave – because the more likely they are to be sought after by competitors.
So what can we do?
There are two schools of thought on how we can proceed: one says live with it.
I think that’s a tragic outcome not only for businesses but for employees too. Changing jobs every six months or year actually slows down mastery because so much time is spent learning the dynamics of a new business. This results in relatively experienced employees with relatively poor skills.
The other school of thought says we have the power to change this.
Here’s what I think we can do:
Those of you who are parents can start by ensuring your children understand the value and importance of mastery, rather than simply the relationship between work and material gain. The best people I employ are not the best educated, but the ones raised right.
Every one of us can get out there and contribute to raising awareness about digital and technology careers among young people. There are many outreach programmes, mentorship opportunities and other ways for those of us who know what the need looks like to help educate the next generation.
Formalise teaching in our businesses. We need to break with traditional slow classroom learning models and build new ones that allow people to grow quickly. This has the dual effect of engaging young people and improving the standard of our work. It also means lower income earners can do more, staving off the need to keep poaching more senior people from competitors.
The opportunities we have as a country and as companies within this country have never been greater. We have an increasing middle class that is ready to spend money. We are an English-speaking country in the same timezone as Europe, which can service the needs of customers on that continent. We remain the best hope for many businesses to enter the African market. And we are capable, at least in theory, of creating startups which could build products with a global audience.
We should all stop focusing as much on how we’re going to persuade talent away from our competitors, and start focusing on how we’re going to grow talent of our own. When we do that, greatness will follow.
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to email@example.com.